UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas — Brodrick Brown didn't just need to be held out of practice the week before Oklahoma State's regular-season finale.
He needed crutches to simply get around on his injured foot.
But when that Saturday at Baylor rolled around, the Cowboy defensive back played. He gutted it out on one good leg.
“You've got to keep fighting on,” he said. “You're feeling down. You've got to just continue to pray, get your mind right, continue to focus.”
Brown had that lesson reinforced by a shy, petite high school cheerleader.
Want to know how Brown managed to handle a rough season at cornerback, then to tough out an injury that would've sidelined most players?
Meet Paden Blevins.
The 17-year-old Crescent High School senior was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma two years ago. The cancer attacked her body's immune system and compromised her ability to fight infection. She battled and beat it twice.
Only a couple months after Paden was given a clean bill of health, she and Brodrick met.
They've been inspiring each other ever since.
* * *
Paden went up for a rebound and felt pain in her neck. A sophomore on the Crescent basketball team, she had missed much of her freshman season with a neck injury that required a brace, and that rebound re-aggravated the injury.
But as she massaged her muscles, she noticed a lump by her left collarbone near the base of her neck.
She went to the doctor on a Thursday.
On Friday, she was diagnosed with cancer.
A round of chemotherapy followed. Because of the drugs, Paden lost all of her brown hair, but on Valentine's Day 2011 — two months after her diagnosis — she was given a clean bill of health.
Over the next six months, life started to return to normal. Her hair grew back. Her strength returned.
Then, the week before school started, Paden felt a familiar lump by her left collarbone.
“It's back,” she told her mom.
It was as big as a golf ball.
Doctors decided to leave nothing to chance this time. They prescribed an intense treatment regiment of radiation and chemo.
“That was 10 times worse,” Paden said.
She spent days and sometimes weeks at OU Children's Hospital. She had four months of hell.
But on Dec. 21, 2011 came good news — a clean scan.
Not long after, she was invited to OSU's Coaches vs. Cancer Basketball Bash. It was quite an honor for a longtime Cowboy fan like Paden. She would be introduced during a game, shoot free throws at halftime and get to meet some football players.
“I did not want to do it,” she said. “I'm really shy.”
That wasn't the only reason she hesitated.
“She had not wanted to be around basketball,” her mom, Jeanette, said. “She did not want to play basketball. She didn't want to have that reminder.”
It was a reminder of healthier, happier days.
Paden hadn't touched a basketball since the day she felt that pain in her neck. Since the diagnosis that followed, her life had been about cancer, not basketball. It made her frustrated and angry and sad.
She wasn't sure she wanted to be back out on a court.
Then, she met Brodrick.
* * *
Brodrick decided that they were not only going onto the court during the basketball bash but also going to do a wacky handshake and dance when Paden was introduced.
He teased her the entire time.
By the time Paden was introduced, she was laughing and smiling. Beaming really.
The smile never left her face.
“This has been the best day ever,” she told her mom when they got in the car after the game. “I'm so glad I did this.”
Only a few weeks later, Paden and Brodrick crossed paths again at Art with a Heart, featuring artwork by young cancer patients and benefiting Oklahoma Children's Cancer Association. They talked, and they laughed.
A bond was built.
In the months that have followed, Paden and her family invited Brodrick to spend Easter with them and asked him to attend the fall review pep rally at school. They also went to every Cowboy game in Stillwater, arriving early to see The Walk and staying late outside Boone Pickens Stadium to visit Brodrick.
On game days, he always wore one of Paden's cheerleading pins, a big, circular button with a color photo of her in uniform.
“We just feel like (he's) a part of our family,” Paden's mom said.
Brodrick said, “That's a great family. You never know who you're going to meet once you get to college.”
Or what impact they might have.
* * *
Paden believes she is a better person for knowing Brodrick. He helped her overcome some of the anger that had come along with her cancer. He coaxed her into a happier place.
But Brodrick is the one who feels all the benefits of the relationship are his.
“It's just a blessing to be in her presence,” he said. “After everything she's been through, she's a champion at heart. She's a champion in my eyes.”
So, as the regular season wound down and his foot got worse and worse, he refused to let it keep him from playing. He might not practice. He might need crutches. He might be frustrated about the way the secondary was playing and have every reason to sit out.
But come Saturdays, he was playing.
The cornerback who will make his 41st consecutive start Tuesday in the Heart of Dallas Bowl followed the example of the cheerleader who got cancer.
Brodrick fought like Paden did.
“She's inspired me,” he said. “She's my hero.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.